Commitment to Social Justice
Gordon Cooney ’84 J.D. achieved what many lawyers consider the pinnacle of a career—he argued before the Supreme Court. He was proud and humbled, and being a Villanova-trained lawyer, completely prepared.
But Cooney was reminded that—win or lose—this argument, regarding compensation for an exonerated man, was not the most important one of his life. That argument already had been won.
Cooney’s client, John Thompson, issued that poignant reminder to Cooney and his colleagues from Morgan Lewis immediately after the Supreme Court argument. Thompson is a Louisiana man who had been wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1985 after a trial tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. He spent 18 years in prison—14 years on death row in solitary confinement—until Cooney and his Morgan Lewis colleagues won his release.
Cooney joined Thompson’s defense team in 1988, accepting the pro bono assignment post conviction. Villanova alumni and students contribute a significant number of pro bono hours annually, and Cooney was committed to the tradition. “At Villanova, I discovered that the rule of law and principles of social justice are at the heart of the legal profession, and our faculty members are living examples of these precepts,” Cooney says. “And Morgan Lewis exemplifies that commitment, too,” he adds.
After exhausting all appeal options in 1999, the Morgan Lewis team discovered that the prosecutors had withheld evidence favorable to their client. Thompson’s conviction was overturned, and he was granted a new trial.
In the 2003 trial, the evidence of Thompson’s innocence was so overwhelming that the jury took less than 35 minutes to find him not guilty, and his unthinkable ordeal was over. Seven years later—in the shadow of the Supreme Court building—Thompson reminded the team that no matter how the high court ruled on the compensation issue, the acquittal was paramount, and he thanked them for saving his life.
But Cooney says that it is he who should thank Thompson. “John taught me about the power of relationships to transcend time, place and the human condition. He taught me about maintaining dignity despite unbearable circumstances. In prison, John stayed connected to his sons and his mother. Even when he thought he was going to be executed, his focus was not on how we could save his life, but rather, John made us promise to look after his sons.”
Thompson now runs Resurrection After Exoneration, an organization he founded to help other exonerees transition successfully back into society. “Hearing the words ‘not guilty’ was one of the most thrilling and satisfying moments of my career,” Cooney says. “But it is more satisfying to see how John is living his life now. He did not become bitter; rather, he has dedicated himself to helping others. The relationships John is building with those in need will multiply exponentially and better the lives of countless people. The way John handled his situation is inspiring.”